After a pulsating-degenerated-to-scrappy encounter at the Vicente Calderon, Real Madrid progressed to the final of the 2016-17 UEFA Champions League final in Cardiff. With sixteen minutes to go before half-time, Atletico Madrid were 2-0 up after a frenzied beginning, and only a solitary goal away from achieving parity with respect to the first leg. It took all of Real Madrid’s big match experience to wrest back the initiative and score the goal that killed the tie towards the end of the first half. The rest of the match descended into going through the motions, with the result never in doubt.
With this latest result, Real Madrid have a great chance to become the first team to defend their Champions League title (although Juventus may have something to say about that) since AC Milan in the earlier European Cup avatar more than 25 years ago. Ever since the competition was rebranded as the UEFA Champions League, winning the coveted title has been a somewhat of a curse; the holders have not been able to defend their trophy in the subsequent year.
Recently, Manchester United in 2009 and Bayern Munich in 2013 appeared in successive finals, but were unable to win both of them in succession. Two decades ago, when Italy was the centre of the footballing universe, both Juventus and AC Milan managed to string three consecutive finals each, but only managed to win the trophy once. Real Madrid, with three finals in four years have achieved what only a few clubs across Europe have managed to do over the course of the competition’s fabled history.
At first glance, Real Madrid’s continental prowess is there for everyone to see. That they are European footballing royalty is often taken for granted — they hold the record in Champions league titles, consecutive participations in the competition’s group stages, number of semifinal appearances, consecutive semifinals and countless other categories. However, it wasn’t always like this.
Real’s roller coaster ride in Europe
Real Madrid racked up a lot of their Champions League/European Cup trophies in the competition’s infancy. Boasting an array of superstars such as Alfredo di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Raymond Kopa, Francisco Gento and others, the Los Merengues hit the ground running, winning the cup in the first five years. When the ‘60s came along, the rest of continent caught up with them. It wasn’t that Real Madrid’s prowess in the European Cup disappeared overnight — they still managed to reach the finals in 1962, 1964 and 1966 (and won the 1966 edition).
From 1966 onwards, the results went downhill for Real Madrid. They managed only one final appearance in 32 years between their triumphs in 1966 and 1998 (against Liverpool in 1981). Their run of success with three titles in five years at the turn of the millennium came during the reign of Lorenzo Sanz and Florentino Perez as club presidents. It was on the basis of this continental success that Florentino Perez embarked on his Los Galacticos policy, in the mould of the successful team of the five European Cups.
His policy of buying attacking superstars immediately bore fruit, with two La Liga titles and with the endlessly replayed Zidane volley at Hampden Park winning them the 2002 UEFA Champions League. Unfortunately for Perez, the lack of balance in his superstar squad and frequent managerial changes cost him dearly. Defensive players were not valued as much, and Real Madrid gradually declined as a footballing force, costing Perez the Real Madrid presidency in 2006. The team struggled in the Champions League for many years since.
Between 2004-05 to 2009-10, the team were knocked out of Europe in the Round of 16 stage. Over six consecutive seasons, they managed to lose against Juventus, Arsenal, Bayern, Roma, Liverpool and Lyon; and winning the league under Fabio Capello or Bernd Schuster did little to change their European fortunes. In fact, even after significant investment in the squad during the start of Florentino Perez’s second reign in 2009 – with Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Karim Benzema, Xabi Alonso and others joining the ranks – it didn’t prevent Manuel Pellegrini’s Real Madrid from the ignominy of European elimination at the hands of Lyon and the humiliating loss to third-division club Alcorcon in the Copa del Rey round of 32. To make matters worse, Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona were the darlings of Europe.
Mourinho was the difference
It was under these circumstances that Florentino Perez turned to Jose Mourinho, the man who knocked out Barcelona in the 2010 Champions League semi-final and won the competition at Real Madrid’s home stadium, the Santiago Bernabeu. Spare a thought for the massive egg on Perez’s face averted by Mourinho by preventing Barcelona from winning Real Madrid’s favourite trophy at their home venue.
It was Jose Mourinho’s reign which finally turned things around for Florentino Perez’s Real Madrid. It wasn’t all smooth sailing to begin with — he was beaten at the Camp Nou 0-5 in his inaugural El Clasico. As the season progressed, the rivalry was severely tested over four meetings in 18 days with several accusations of unsportsmanlike conduct and the Spanish coach voicing concerns about the harmony in the Spanish squad due to ongoing rifts.
It was in this atmosphere of Mourinho’s siege mentality that the European hoodoo was finally broken. The club would be knocked out in the UEFA Champions League semi-finals by their eternal rivals in his first season. More importantly, later that season, Real Madrid would go on to win the Copa del Rey against Barcelona in extra time and rediscover their big-game mojo.
Slowly, Mourinho’s methods would continuously chafe at Guardiola. Real Madrid would win the league the next season with a record number of points and goals scored, often with a counter-attacking blitz that knocked their opponents out cold. They would finally overcome their biggest rivals wining 3-1 at the Camp Nou in the Cup semifinal, with a weary Guardiola taking a sabbatical at the end of the fractious season.
Mourinho’s team wouldn’t win the Champions League, but the three consecutive semi-final appearances on the world’s biggest club footballing stage went a long way in restoring Real Madrid’s swagger. The Portuguese manager left the club in 2013, but his successor Carlo Ancelotti reaped the benefits the very next year.
The pivotal victories against Barcelona in the 2014 Copa and the two-legged tie against Pep Guardiola’s Bayern were secured in the trademark counter-attacking style reminiscent of Mourinho’s Madrid. His signings Luka Modric and Angel di Maria also made crucial contributions.
Therefore, if Real Madrid played with a champion’s calm after being 0-2 at the Calderon, it was because they had crucial big game experience gained from the grind under Mourinho. Zinedine Zidane may be at the helm today and may well turn out to be an extraordinary coach, but the foundation of this team’s mentality was set seven years ago by the man from Portugal.
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